In 2008, President Obama ran on a promise to close Guantanamo within the first year of his presidency. Five years and a second term later, our modern-day gulag is still open and operating under a policy of indefinite detention solidified by none other than Obama himself. But the detainees have had enough.

The military admitted on Saturday that at least 100 Guantanamo detainees are engaged in a hunger strike, adding that more than a fifth of the strikers are being force fed. Lawyers for the detainees say over 130 prisoners are on strike. Given the US military’s pattern of denying and underreporting the number of strikers since the strike began in February, I’m inclined to believe the lawyers over the military. Either way, over half of the facility’s 166 inmates are refusing to eat.

Think about that for a moment. Think about the pain in your stomach when you miss just one meal. Now imagine how desperate your circumstances would need to be for you to willingly endure that pain for days, weeks, months and even years to get the world’s attention. They are protesting the only way they can: With their bodies.

Force-Feeding Amounts to Torture

At least 21 hunger strikers are being force fed in a brutal process where feeding tubes are shoved through the nostrils, down the throat and into the stomach while the hunger striker is strapped down, unable to resist. This is not the first time forced feedings have been employed as a means to break a massive hunger strike in Guantanamo. Human and civil rights organizations maintain that the coercive force feeding process amounts to torture and is therefore illegal under international law.

The military announced the arrival of more than 40 additional U.S. Navy medics at Guantanamo to help with the feedings. McClatchy reports that 35-year-old hunger striker Fayiz al-Kandari complained to his lawyer that the military was “using a Size 10 tube instead of Size 8”, which Kandari says is “too big”, “induces vomiting” and “makes it hard to breathe.”

The New York Times recently published a powerful op-ed by Guantanamo detainee, Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, a 35-year-old Yemeni national who’s been held at Guantanamo for nearly 12 years. Moqbel has refused to eat for almost three months and is undergoing forced feedings multiple times a day. He’s lost over 30 pounds. He described his forced feedings in vivid detail:

Last month, on March 15, I was sick in the prison hospital and refused to be fed. A team from the E.R.F. (Extreme Reaction Force), a squad of eight military police officers in riot gear, burst in. They tied my hands and feet to the bed. They forcibly inserted an IV into my hand. I spent 26 hours in this state, tied to the bed. During this time I was not permitted to go to the toilet. They inserted a catheter, which was painful, degrading and unnecessary. I was not even permitted to pray.

I will never forget the first time they passed the feeding tube up my nose. I can’t describe how painful it is to be force-fed this way. As it was thrust in, it made me feel like throwing up. I wanted to vomit, but I couldn’t. There was agony in my chest, throat and stomach. I had never experienced such pain before. I would not wish this cruel punishment upon anyone.

I am still being force-fed. Two times a day they tie me to a chair in my cell. My arms, legs and head are strapped down. I never know when they will come. Sometimes they come during the night, as late as 11 p.m., when I’m sleeping.

There are so many of us on hunger strike now that there aren’t enough qualified medical staff members to carry out the force-feedings; nothing is happening at regular intervals. They are feeding people around the clock just to keep up.

During one force-feeding the nurse pushed the tube about 18 inches into my stomach, hurting me more than usual, because she was doing things so hastily. I called the interpreter to ask the doctor if the procedure was being done correctly or not.

It was so painful that I begged them to stop feeding me. The nurse refused to stop feeding me. As they were finishing, some of the “food” spilled on my clothes. I asked them to change my clothes, but the guard refused to allow me to hold on to this last shred of my dignity.

Though the US government refuses to release the identities of the hunger strikers, the Miami Herald published the names of those being force fed with permission from their lawyers.

Indefinite Detention of Innocent People

The vast majority of people who ended up at Guantanamo were literally kidnapped by the US military based on the unsubstantiated claims of prison snitches, informants and local residents who were paid in exchange for information about Al Qaeda operatives. So fingers were pointed, money was collected and hundreds of innocent people–who were in the wrong place at the wrong time–got caught up in a nightmare that, for many, is ongoing.

Among those shipped off to Guantanamo were children, the elderly, the mentally ill and at least one journalist who was held for six years because he worked for Al Jazeera.


Some people have excused the President’s failure to close Guantanamo by blaming congress, specifically the GOP, for lack of political will. But the truth is Obama shares just as much, if not more blame. Baher Azmy, Legal Director for the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has been at the forefront of the fight to end the shameful legacy of Guantanamo, argues that “Obama’s failure to close Guantánamo is due to an absence of will, not an absence of authority.”

“[T]he most direct limitation on his ability to successfully close the prison is self-inflicted: a ban on all transfers to Yemen, which roughly 90 of the men at Guantánamo call home. Imposed following an attempted attack in 2009 by the so-called Underwear Bomber, the moratorium amounts to collective punishment based purely on where they happened to be born,” explains Azmy.

The Obama administration cleared 86 of the 166 detainees still caged at Guantanamo years ago. Among them are 56 Yemeni nationals who, as Azmy explained, Obama refuses to free. The US argues that if released, these detainees, who are probably and rightfully pissed at the US for torturing and caging them for more than a decade, might engage in terrorism against the US to get back at their captures. Essentially these people are being held indefinitely to prevent possible future crimes, just like in the movie Minority Report.

This is why Abdulrahman al-Shabati, 30, has spent over 12 years locked up at Guantanamo even though he was cleared for release by the Bush Administration in 2008. His daughter, Awdah, was born after Abdulrahman was snatched up while studying in Pakistan in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Awdah has never met her Dad in person.

The US has made the release of these detainees even more impossible by demanding psychic powers guarantees those freed won’t join Al Qaeda. “Some releases would need senior U.S. officials to certify that countries receiving an inmate were willing and able to stop the individual from acting against the United States – a guarantee few U.S. politicians would want to give,” explains Reuters.

As a result, an aide to the Yemeni Prime Minister told Reuters that “work was underway on an $11 million centre to hold the prisoners while they undergo a rehabilitation program to ensure they did not return to al Qaeda.”

To summarize: After wrongly imprisoning dozens of innocent people for over a decade without charge or trial with no end in sight (not to mention the years of torture sanctioned by the Bush administration), US officials are prioritizing saving their own asses above international law and basic human rights. The irony is that the existence of Guantanamo fuels anti-American sentiment, so in reality, closing it and ending the use of indefinite detention would go a long way in pacifying Al Qaeda recruitment.

In His Own Words

Shaker Aamer is on hunger strike in Guantánamo Bay. Photograph: Reprieve

Shaker Aamer, a UK resident, was shipped to Guantanamo on Febrary 14, 2002, the same day his son and fourth child was born. More than 11 years later, Aamer has yet to meet his son despite being cleared for release by US authorities twice. The Guardian reports that Aamer “may never be allowed to return to his family in London because of an alleged ‘secret deal’ between US authorities, Saudi Arabia and the British security services.” Aamer has gone nearly 80 days without food to protest his detention. In a letter published by The Guardian, Aamer wrote: “I hope I do not die in this awful place. I want to hug my children and watch them as they grow.”